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A.F. Steadman's Top Books Featuring Mythical Creatures

Posted on 19th April 2022 by Mark Skinner

As A.F. Steadman's epic children's fantasy Skandar and the Unicorn Thief soars into the world this week, we asked the incredibly talented author to select her favourite children's books featuring richly imagined and beautifully realised mythical creatures. From beloved classics to exciting new stories, discover her choices below.

What is a mythical creature? In many ways this is a very difficult question to answer since they must, unavoidably, exist within our imaginations. They have no fixed form – how can they, when we can’t ever see them in the real world? And even their mythical forms have shifted over the centuries. Take unicorns as an example. They have been described in countless different ways since the first written record of them in around 400 BCE: some fierce and fast, others with the magical ability to heal, others as symbols of purity. They are perhaps most recognisable to us in modern times as cute, rainbow-coloured companions. And in Skandar and the Unicorn Thief I reimagined them again, as bloodthirsty creatures brimming with elemental magic, that can only be tamed by their destined rider. Ferocious. Magical. And deadly. 

I have always loved books featuring mythical creatures. I loved that balance of possibility and impossibility. The idea that nobody could point to a dragon, a unicorn, or a sphinx and tell me the way I imagined the creature in the story I was reading was wrong. That nobody could tell me for sure that they didn’t exist. Because they are so pervasive in legend and folktales – and even in historical record – there was always that possibility that they just might exist, that I might find one if I looked hard enough. This is something Skandar and the Unicorn Thief explores too. What if unicorns were real? What if they were deadly? What if their home was an island just off the coast of the UK? What if we sent thirteen-year-old children to ride them and tame their magic? 

And I have to say, I love mythical creatures even more now that I write books of my own, because I’ve come to understand that unlike real creatures, they do not depend on food or water or kindness. They depend instead on human creativity. On stories. And, of course, I still believe there’s a chance the creatures featured in my favourite books below are real. Don’t you? Here are some of them . . . 

The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula K. Le Guin

The dragons in the Earthsea books loom large over the adventures of Ged and his companions. One of the reasons I love Le Guin’s portrayal is that they feel like a myth, even within the confines of a world of wizards and magic. One of my favourite lines comes from The Farthest Shore when Arren sees dragons for the first time: ‘Arren did not speak, but he thought: I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of the morning.’ That profound wonder is something I share whenever I return to this series. But, like unicorns, not all dragons look or behave like those of Earthsea. Some of my favourite dragons come from the How To Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell. Each dragon has its own distinctive personality, which brings such fun to the stories. 

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The Wizard of Earthsea and its remarkably accomplished sequels possess all the pin-sharp prose and questioning intelligence of her adult work and have proved an incalculable influence on the fantasy genre ever since.
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Frostheart by Jamie Littler

Another book I adore is Frostheart. At its heart are monsters called Leviathans, that lurk beneath the ice. Their songs are central to the main character’s adventures and I’m sure I had nightmares about them while reading the books! Another mythical creature, a yeti called Tobu, also plays a big role in the story and I loved the way his and Ash’s friendship develops across the series. 

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Glittering with wintry wonder, this debut children’s novel takes a sleigh ride into the heart of a magical adventure with a young boy called Ash and his disagreeable yeti guardian.
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Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Talking of friends, how about a mythical creature for a roommate? One of my favourite recent fantasy reads is Amari and the Night Brothers. When Amari Peters is invited to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs she certainly comes across her fair share of mythical creatures – even her roommate is secretly a weredragon! I love the playfulness that Alston uses to imagine the mythical creatures Amari encounters in the Bureau: a bigfoot named Sir Francis Sasquatch III, a bored cyclops, flocks of fairies. It’s wonderful.

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A rip-roaring supernatural adventure with a lovable lead character, Alston’s gripping debut features a missing brother, a sinister organisation and a thoroughly evil magician.
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The Polar Bear Explorers' Club by Alex Bell

And, while we’re on the subject of playful, I just have to mention another favourite of mine, The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club by Alex Bell – and the pygmy dinosaurs! Although dinosaurs aren’t technically mythical creatures, I think Buster, the pygmy t-rex, has to be counted as one of my favourite ever fantasy creations. Although apparently he’s prone to drooling . . .

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The first instalment of Bell's joyous adventure series, The Polar Bear Explorers' Club introduces the intrepid Stella Starfkale Pearl and her mission across the snowy wastes in the company of frost fairies, unicorns and pygmy dinosaurs.
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Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest by Aisling Fowler

Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest is one of my favourite recent reads. As a Huntling, Twelve has given up her name and must train in the art of fighting monsters. Through a textbook called A Magical Bestiary, Fowler gives the reader notes on the monsters she has invented like wraiths, moxies and the terrifying grim. She even gives them marks out of ten for aggression, danger posed, and difficulty to disable. But I also loved her portrayal of other fantastical creatures like her tricksy fire sprites and the wonderful Dog – the stone guardian of the Hunting Lodge, who comes to life and becomes one of Twelve’s closest companions.

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Packed full of unforgettable characters and compelling plotting, Fowler’s electrifying debut is set in a richly imagined prehistoric world where a courageous young Huntling braves the forbidding Northern forests in search of a missing girl.
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Moonchild: Voyage of the Lost and Found by Aisha Bushby

Magical creatures as companions is something I love in a story, and one last book I’d like to mention is Moonchild: Voyage of the Lost and Found by Aisha Bushby. In this beautiful tale, I absolutely loved Bushby’s portrayal of Amira’s jinni – a magical cat companion called Namur. And there are plenty of other mythical creatures to enjoy too, including mermaids and the powerful stormbird, in this gloriously imaginative tale.

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A mysterious storm that gets stronger every day, a promise of a place where lost things can be found and a beautiful friendship form the magical ingredients of the first book of Bushby’s dazzling middle-grade fantasy series that draws inspiration from The Arabian Nights.
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